Amendment 7

Part of Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 13 April 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench 5:15, 13 April 2021

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 13, to which I have attached my name. Its purpose is to ensure that service personnel are not debarred by time from pursuing claims against the Government for harms suffered on overseas operations. It seems strange to me that a Bill with the avowed purpose of providing government reassurance to service personnel seems intent on preventing those very personnel from seeking redress from that same Government. This may not be the intention, but it is one of the potential consequences of the Bill as it is currently worded.

In responding to a similar amendment in Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General for Scotland, argued against it because it would have very limited effect. At Second Reading, the Government said that some 94% of service personnel and veterans who brought claims relating to events in Iraq and Afghanistan had done so within six years. He later confirmed that this figure included those who had brought a claim within six years of the date of knowledge. My response is to repeat the question that I posed on that occasion, and which was never answered: are we to assume then that, had the proposed timescale been in effect, the Government believe that it would have been acceptable for the other 6% to lose the opportunity to pursue their cases?

The Government also say that the vast majority of claims by service personnel relate to events in the UK, not to overseas operations. I really fail to see the relevance of this point. To argue that only a small number of service personnel would suffer injustice does not seem to me a respectable position for a Government to take at any time, let alone in a Bill that is supposed to provide support and reassurance to those people.

The noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General for Scotland also said in Committee that one of the purposes of Part 2 was to introduce a longstop that would encourage the earlier laying and investigation of civil claims and any associated criminal investigations. This seems remarkably similar to the aim of Part 1. There is, however, a very different approach to the matter of timescales. Part 1 does not introduce a significant legal watershed. Complaints can still be brought to prosecution subject to certain tests that ought to be applied with or without the Bill. The time limit placed on complaints brought by service personnel or veterans is of a very different character. It is not a high bar: it is an impassable wall.

I accept that Part 1 deals with criminal prosecutions and that Part 2 is concerned with civil claims, and that this might therefore give rise to different rules. It seems strange, however, that in a Bill that is supposed to support our Armed Forces, their civil claims are subject to more stringent rules than the complaints brought by others against them. Perhaps the major objection that the Advocate-General advanced against an amendment of this nature, however, was that it would treat service personnel and veterans as a separate class from others. Just so—is this not exactly what the Bill overall seeks to do? If such a distinction is insupportable in this part of the Bill, why not in the rest of it? Part 1 seems to offer no particular protection to MoD civilians employed on operations, even though they could conceivably be accused of criminal offences, yet that is not regarded as a flaw in the Bill.

There is a widespread impression that the MoD is using the Bill to protect itself from claims, rather than—or, at least, in addition to—protecting service personnel and veterans. The easiest way for the Government to correct this—as they would see it—misleading impression is surely to accept Amendment 13.